“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”
“And what is that going to lead to?”
“The acquisition of knowledge.”
“That doesn’t sound very practical.”
This is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.
The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.
As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.
Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.
Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.
That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?
My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.
Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.
As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Full plot summary